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Diary excerpts from a volunteer in Vietnam
These diary excerpts give a snapshot into my life as a volunteer in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. It has been one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my life to date. The people I met and grew to understand and love will always have a place in my heart and have contributed to the person I am today.
In March 2013 I returned to the university for a visit and met with all my old friends and colleagues. It was absolutely heart-warming to see friendly faces and smiles of recognition after 7 longs years away!
To read further reflections from my time in Vietnam, please visit my hub: A volunteer in Vietnam - reflections on a remarkable country.
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24 August, 2006
I’ve been in Vietnam for almost two weeks now. I’ve seen so many new things and struggle with seeing it through a new set of eyes than I did as a tourist. Now the harshness I mistook for a novelty when on holiday here – is 100% my reality. I oscillate between being able to cope with it and then hating it – the inability to just wander down the road without checking for random bikes or trucks hurtling towards me.
I am overwhelmed at being so visible. Living here, I am now looked at constantly, instead of my looking through the window that travel usually is, in its transitory and impermanent state. I hate being white, being different and standing out so much.
One old man, who is always in the same chair around the corner from my hotel in Saigon – has decided to tell me about his life. He sits at a little red table on a plastic chair and smokes. He is an unusual man, wily and thin as a whippet. He used to be a publisher, before the war. His life is mapped by dates, events out of his control that bind him to his current situation. Four pills in his shirt pocket – Cefeclor – for an infection in his heel that he’s had for eight months. Bare feet, brown and lean, rest on the corner of his plastic table. I found out he’s only 48! I couldn’t believe it. He looks 80! A life on the streets has weathered him and stripped away any ounce of youth left in him.
His world is viewed from his shady spot under a tree. The street sweepers look like workers in a nuclear power station – mouths covered. He picks a twig carefully off his table, as if he is in his own dining room rather than in an outdoor cafe. He restores his dignity with such a small motion and I am struck by his poise, despite his changed circumstances. He seems to know everyone. “There’s a lady boy”, he says pointing to a woman walking past. When I comment on a white woman I see walking by – he knows who she is and tells me she is an English teacher who prefers local African migrant men to Vietnamese men – and that she takes them frequently to her guesthouse.
25 August, 2006
Today I had lunch with an old cyclo driver who takes me to my Vietnamese classes every day. His smile, punctuated by his jagged and broken teeth is often the most beautiful part of my day. He rode me to his neighbourhood – District 4, where I saw only three other tourists and we sat down at a little cafe on the side of the street and had the most delicious meal I’ve had here yet. He even gave me the choicest pork from his bowl when he saw I had finished mine. He used his chopsticks to give it to me and I hated the way I immediately thought of hepatitis. My immunisations were like a blanket, allowing me to pass unscathed through this foreign and sometimes overwhelming place. I took the meat he offered and ate it. His generosity is something I am starting to understand is an integral part of Vietnamese culture.
Vietnamese people are incredibly welcoming as I found out this morning when the lady who runs the guesthouse I’m staying at brought me up some pineapple (in addition to the bananas she’d given me earlier for breakfast). The day before, the grandmother of the house gave me two extra pieces of orange with a kind smile. I’m starting to understand that just because Vietnamese people might not verbally thank each other a lot, kind gestures like these are a million times more meaningful.
26 August, 2006
Today has seen me eat what I think was liver – or something blood-coloured and an avocado shake. Of course the shake was triple the price of the liver because it was from the monstrous De Tham, that gawking tourist strip I now loathe. Every second step I get asked to buy a book, a fan, ride a motorbike or buy a hammock. Sometimes as soon as I say (nicely) that I don’t want to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels or Cholon, they dismiss me with a wave of the hand and the transaction is over – their eyes glazed – making me feel like a piece of space junk.
Frequently, I hear bemused travellers saying things like “Do I look like I need a pair of sunglasses” to their friends when they are already wearing a pair, or make lewd jokes about the massage stick they are being offered to purchase. Once I even saw an Australian man shoo away a particularly persistent woman with a flick of his hand – suddenly seeing himself as some kind of king. How must she have felt? Sure, she was harassing him and it would have been frustrating. God knows I feel frustrated, but to treat someone like that is not what I ever want to be reduced to. Colonialism and the arrogance it embodies is still alive and well amongst these buffoons – tourists who in their own country would be of little significance, yet who believe their whiteness gives them the right to treat people here with disrespect. It makes me ashamed of my own country and how we must appear to people here.
I’ve found that when I look into the eyes of people trying to sell me one of their goods, I see through the automaton of their spiels and into the special, human part, which almost always responds to kindness. Usually I just smile and shake my head and they smile back and let me go on my way quietly.
Seeing Vietnam through the eyes of an ex-pat instead of a tourist has certainly revealed more of the reality of this country. At the moment I’m hormonal, and experiencing the beginnings of real culture shock I think. The full impact of culture shock is meant to take three months, the 1st three months in a new country is supposed to be washed with a high so that the vast differences appear easily navigated and even make up part of the charm. However, I hate big cities in general, and was mugged on my 1st night here, so the charm has certainly worn off. I got off lightly, they didn’t get my bag, but as the woman on the back of the motorbike snatched at my money purse crossed over my shoulders, it dragged me along the road and hurt. That’s never happened to me before and it was a shock. Lucky it was just a woman on the back of her boyfriend’s motorbike, so she let go pretty quickly as she wasn’t strong enough to keep pulling me behind her.
The 2nd day I was in Vietnam I was walking along a putrid gutter and I come to an intersection when I saw a stout woman pulling a boy in an orange T-shirt along, twisting his arm, her mouth hanging open and nasty as he squealed. She hit him over the head, spitting her violence over him. He averted his head, his latent hysteria evident and her malevolence only enticed by his pleas for her to stop. The viciousness with which she grabbed his ear and twisted it, then slapped his head again and again, stopped me in my tracks and my mouth fell open. I watched until the pair turned around a corner, the injustice of it pricking my eyes with the beginning of a great river of tears I would store in me during my time here.
I saw a boy throw a rock at a female street sweeper, and I was astounded at her lack of vitriol towards him. She simply turned her head and continued her solemn chore.
The river of tears I speak of overwhelms me and I add to it with every piece of suffering I see here– every emaciated cat, blinded by chronic conjunctivitis, their crooked, once bound tails like stumps, ludicrously following them like broken masts – or the poverty that makes the old cyclo driver I met plead to my humanity, his way of begging – tempered by his smile, a mumbled apology – his eyes contorted, his broken teeth the only things I can see. So I hand him a 50,000 dong note instead of the 10,000 I really owe him for the five minute trip. The tension between my wish to see him as a kind person in this city of strangers and the reality that he is probably only being nice to me because he needs my money, makes me uncomfortable. He smiles as I hand the money to him and wishes me luck.
Looking back at my time in Vietnam, I am grateful that my eyes were opened to a nation of fiercely independent and hard-working people, determined to wrench themselves out of poverty and hardship. I also saw and experienced elements of humanity that disappointed and deeply hurt me. However the over-riding emotion that I have when I think back to my time in Vietnam, is the love I developed for my friends and the people who showed me kindness and integrity when I was in a vulnerable and isolated position. I hope one day that I can return that kindness and see them again. Nine months in Vietnam gave me more life experiences and self-knowledge than ten years could have done in Australia. It taught me that compassion can be shown by simply accepting that sometimes people’s circumstances are the real tragedy, rather than any negative impact their actions had on me as a young Australian woman who was both burnt and blessed by her time in such an amazing and vibrant country.